To MFA, or not to MFA

A look at the benefits of graduate studies in the arts

MFA art
MFAs may not be worth the price tag.
Photo: 

A Masters of Fine Arts is worth it — if you can afford it. 

It’s clear there are benefits to pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA); you’re guaranteed access to brilliant professors and established artists as well as a place to fully dedicate yourself to your passion.

Typically, an MFA is a two-to-three-year graduate program that includes the study of visual arts, photography, performance arts, graphic design or even creative writing.  

Even so, there’s a question I’ve often heard being pondered: is the degree really worth the price tag? 

A big problem with these programs is that student applicants must be financially stable in order to realistically consider them. 

If you have the money, the highly structured creative education is beneficial for most budding artists, especially when it can bridge the creative work with its potential real world applications. Creating art that reaches enough people to be financially viable or to influence social change can be a tough undertaking, but an MFA has the power to make it more practical. 

An MFA works to teach artists how they can make the most of their abilities, with the added bonus of having faculty members who understand the industry and are willing to pass on their knowledge.

Regardless, a lot of students find themselves unable to pursue a graduate degree because of the cost of the programs. In an attempt to remedy this common barrier, several universities have offered support through teaching assistant positions specifically for grad students. 

Nonetheless, at a school like UBC, for example, this support ends up financing just a fraction of an average student’s overall cost of living — only covering around $3,000 compared to typical total living costs of around $19,000. 

Ideally, these additional expenses can be covered with scholarships, awards and bursaries — though this isn’t always the case.

Despite these financial barriers, the fact remains  that an MFA is the best way for a young artist to get their name out there.

For one, many programs have publications and galleries open to student contribution that can give artists an early leg-up and exposure to the industry. Publications like UBC’s PRISM International can also be a major kickstarter for a young writer. 

As well as allowing for this publicity, the program forces students  to think of creating art as their job.  

It’s easy to shake your head at the structure and rigor of an MFA program, especially considering the creative nature of the fine arts. But these programs have the ability to structure that creativity and provide the motivation needed to diligently create.

For two years, art stops being a side project or a hobby and becomes a day-to-day focus. 

At their core, most MFA programs are the same — with variations coming in quality of materials, staff and students. Most offer effective professors, access to studio space and equipment that artists wouldn’t necessarily be able to obtain themselves.

For many artists, this is draw enough alone. 

All in all, it comes down to a matter of knowing yourself. If it’s an issue of financial insecurity, a reality for many students, it becomes a question of risk versus reward. If money isn’t an issue, however, pursuing an MFA is the most beneficial way for artists to make a career of their passion.

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